A January Oxford Walk
Stroll around one of England’s most storied towns
By Michael Walsh
I envy you going to Oxford: it is the most flower-like time of one’s life. One sees the shadow of things in silver mirrors. Later on, one sees the Gorgon’s head, and one suffers, because it does not turn one to stone.
Oscar Wilde, letter to Louis Wilkinson, 28 December 1898
On several occasions, over the past few months, I have been in the fortunate position to visit Oxford on a regular basis. As such, I have been able to discover the simple pleasures of walking along the cobbled streets and narrow lanes and discovering the unique history of this city. Oxford has been described as comprising “groups of towers, pinnacles, spires, domes (and) turrets… surrounded by verdant meadows, intersected by several streams.”
As a “ford for oxen” across the Thames – the name ‘Oxford’ was first listed in the Burghal Hidage (914-919). As such, it was an important trade route from the Midlands to the south of England. The prosperity of the town grew until the Norman Conquest (1066) – a period in which near half of the city was destroyed. The city, however, quickly recovered and, by the 12th century, was an important trade and religious centre. Interestingly, the ‘emergence’ of Oxford University was a result of the Anglo-French wars (1193-1204). Students could no longer attend the University of Paris, which at that time, was Europe’s most prestigious centre for higher learning.
The early 14th century saw important commerce moving away from the city coupled with the devastating effects of the Black Death. The result was an economic decline that left large tracts of lands available for the colleges to purchase.
The Reformation, under Henry VIII, caused a major upheaval within the university’s monastic colleges. Luckily, they were small enough to be saved from destruction by being transformed into academic institutions – the town’s abbeys and friaries were not so fortunate – they were torn down and their contents dispersed.
The early 17th century marked a rebuilding of both the city and the university. The Restoration of 1660 saw the university “acquiring a collection of monumental buildings second to none in England”.
A second huge acquisition of new buildings occurred in the 1850s – coupled with the end of clerical control in the university.
Oxford entered the post-war era unscathed – however rebuilding efforts in the 1960-1970s have been described as from “mediocre to disastrous”. But in all fairness, this eclectic mixture of architectural styles is the fabric that makes Oxford a fascinating place to visit.
Judge for yourself, during our 1.6 km walk through Oxford’s streets and lanes on a sunny January weekend.
Hertford Bridge – New College Lane
The construction of Hertford Bridge, connecting two parts of Hertford College, was strongly opposed by Oxford City Council. The university received permission, in 1913, to construct the bridge after a lengthy lawsuit that involved producing charters dating to King John.
Hertford College derives its name from “Hert Hall” (a clerks’ residence during the reign of Edward I) which previously occupied the site. The college was founded, as Hertford College, by royal charter in 1740. However, economic conditions in 1805 forced the dissolution of the college and a majority of the original buildings were demolished. A fire in Magdalen Hall, in 1820, forced the occupants to relocate – as such, Hertford College was rebuilt, in 1874, for that purpose.
St. Helen’s Passage
A short distance down from Hertford Bridge, one comes across a lane named “St Helen’s Passage” – it is quite narrow and can be easily overlooked. It was formerly named “Hell Passage” – possibly reflecting the difficult living conditions in former times. It contains an interesting story – in the mid-1800s it was home to a family of stable groomers. Their seventeen-year-old daughter Jane Burden was approached by two artists commissioned to paint a mural for the Oxford Union Building – their names were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
Rossetti was stuck by Jane’s beauty – “her abundant, flowing hair and large dark eyes…” and painted her as Guinevere in the Oxford Union mural. Another Oxford Union painter, William Morris asked Jane Burden to model for his painting of Iseult. These paintings made her famous – as they set the standard for Pre-Raphaelite beauty in British painting. Jane married William Morris in 1859 and never returned to her Hell Passage origins.
At the end of St Helen’s Passage is the Turf Tavern. The pub is located upon Oxford’s ‘canditch’ – a moat outside the city’s walls. Formerly, a malt house, dating to 1381, it became a cider house in the late 1700s named the “Spotted Cow”. Its present name appeared in the mid-1800s as a meeting place for accountants (“turf men”)
Edmond Halley’s House
Returning from St Helen’s Passage onto New College Lane – house number 7 is the former home of Edmund Halley. As a professor at Oxford (1703-43) he predicted the return of the comet that bears his name. The house still contains its roof-top observatory.
Slightly further down New College Lane one comes across New College. One of its remarkable features are its beautiful gardens flanked by a portion of the original city walls. (Unfortunately for us, the gates were locked). The college’s foundation stone was laid by William of Wykeham (Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England), in 1380. Interestingly, the college was built to repopulate the clergy following the devastation of the Black Death.
Church of St. Peter in the East
Following New College Lane – the street name changes to Queen’s Lane, site of the Church of St. Peter in the East. This Norman church and crypt are now a library for St. Edmund Hall (named in honour of St Edmund of Abingdon). A unique feature of the library is that students need to cross a graveyard to access their materials. Described as “…the first Oxford library to be built with shelves along the walls, and the last to be furnished with chains”.
St. Edmund Hall
St. Edmund Hall, dates to the 1300s, and has the distinction of the “oldest surviving academic society to house and educate undergraduates in any university.”
Queen’s Lane Coffee House
Queen’s Lane terminates at High Street close to the Queen’s Lane Coffee House – established in 1654 by Syrian named Cirques Jobson.
William Morris’ Garage
Nearby, at 48 Longwall Street is the William Morris garage – built in 1912 as a showroom and workshop for his company’s line of famous MG sports cars. Strategically located near the Queens’ Lane shopping area, the building is currently residential.
Church of St. Cross and Holywell Cemetery
Further along Longwall Street one comes across St. Cross Church located in a fairly modern section of the city. However, the vine-covered path that leads to the church’s Holywell cemetery immediately transports one back to Victorian Oxford. Built in the mid-1800s on land gifted from Merton College as a response to the cholera outbreak in the 1840s.
Before the retirement of the last keeper, in 1931, the area comprised beautifully tended gardens. As such it is somewhat overgrown – however, that doesn’t seem to detract from its visual appearance. One notable vault is Kenneth Grahame, author of “The Wind in the Willows”. Today, a dedicated group of volunteers (The Friends of Holywell Cemetery) are responsible for the area’s upkeep and management.
Holywell Music Room
Retracing one’s steps along Holywell leads to the Holywell Music Room – opened in 1748, today it is the world’s oldest surviving concert hall.
Lastly a cobble stoned lane, Bath Place, runs off Holywell Street leading to the Bath Place Hotel. The hotel is comprised of several 17th cottages with rooms to let. A favourite haunt for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor when the former was performing in Oxford.
Following Bath Place one arrives at the Turf Tavern – a tour that takes you full circle – just in time to enjoy a tall glass of cold draught.
All other images: Michael Walsh
The Storied Trees of Oxford
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident and a higher education IT professional. A mycologist and statistician by training. While not at work, he walks his dog and tries to impart the beauty and hidden history Westmount has to offer to residents and visitors alike through his blog at Westmount Overlooked.